One of the great things about coming to work at our Helicopter Ambulance Service is that no two shifts are alike. The night before Thanksgiving was a good example.........
Our shift change happens at 1845 hrs., (6:45 P.M. to those not familiar with the 24 hour clock.)
I meet with the day shift pilot and debrief him on his day.......clues about incoming weather, aircraft status, any other details of interest.
I meet with my medical crew to see if they have further details on possible problems with the aircraft from the medical viewpoint.
Hearing no problems, I do a weather check. I check current and forecast weather at several stations around our location to see what is out there, and what we will have to deal with later. I call our dispatchers and insure they have the names of the crew that will be manning the helicopter for the next 12 hours, and report the weather to them so they know if I will need to do another weather check prior to accepting any flight. Pilots are the final authority on weather decisions........If for any reason I'm not comfortable with the weather, no one questions my decision.
I have turned flights down because the temperature and dewpoint were too close together, indicating the possibility of fog formation. My med crews know I am cautious, and they appreciate it.
I then grab my helmet and go out to check the helicopter. I plug in and hang my helmet, adjust the seat and anti-torque pedals to my settings, and check the logbook to insure no pending inspection or maintenance will be due during our shift. If I find an item that may conflict with our ability to fly, I notify dispatch of that fact so that they can make plans to tag another aircraft with a flight later, if necessary.
After checking the log, I do my preflight. I fly the BK117, a medium sized, twin engine helicopter built by American Eurocopter. It is a German machine, with American (Lycoming) engines. There's a lot to look at on this bird. A really thorough preflight on a machine I was not familiar with could easily take 45 minutes. Even under normal conditions, it takes half an hour.
If a flight comes in during this process, we accept it. I'll do a VERY abbreviated preflight.......
Main rotor, check. Tail rotor, check. Fluid in all reservoirs, check. All cowlings secure, check. General overall appearance of the machine.......check. Sufficient fuel for the flight, check. Startup with normal procedures, and go.
Our goal is to be airborne within 8 minutes of getting notification of a flight.
I can normally do it in 6.
Wednesday night the phone rang at 2045 hrs.. A prisoner with a bowel obstruction needed to be transported to the State Capital for surgery. After coordinating with representatives of the prison and insuring they knew our rules for this flight, we were airborne at 2059 hrs, and landed at the sending hospital at 2123 hrs..
My crew packaged the prisoner and I briefed the guard on what I expected of him. While my crew loaded the prisoner aboard the aircraft, I showed the guard how to operate the door, how to jettison it in case of emergency, the location of fire extinguishers, how to fasten and unbuckle the seat belts. I grabbed a headset, plugged it in for him, and showed him how to adjust the volume control.
We took off at 2155 hours for the receiving hospital. It was a little bumpy, but a gorgeous night to fly..........50 miles visiblity. The guard loved it......our prisoner, in great discomfort, thought the bumpiness was the work of the devil.
We landed at the receiving hospital at 2253 hrs.. Their rules require a cold offload, so I shut down the engines and used the rotor brake to stop the rotor. We offloaded the prisoner, and while the crew and guard took the prisoner downstairs, I started the helicopter and flew to the airport to refuel for the flight home.
This flight took 3 minutes. At almost 11 P.M., the non-federal control tower was closed, so I made advisory radio calls of my position and landed on the ramp, where the fuel guy was waiting with flashlight/wands to guide me to my refueling pad. I shut down and showed him where the fuel tank was located, and he told me there was "Moose Tracks" ice cream waiting inside for me if I was interested.
I left him to refuel the machine and quickly moved to the refrigerator!
After a nice bowl of ice cream and a hot cuppa coffee, dispatch called and said my crew was ready to be picked up. I took off at 2341 hrs. and landed at the hospital at 2344. Again, I had to shut the engines down to load crew and stretcher. We left the capital at 2353 hrs. and landed at our company headquarters, (not our base), for fuel 44 minutes later.
Here, I hot refueled the aircraft while my crew went for their cuppa. I was nearly finished with refueling when my paramedic came out and told me we were on standby for an accident scene 20 minutes south of us. Fueling complete and fuel cap secured, instead of going to the accident scene, we took off for a local hospital 15 minutes south, where the victim had been transported.
Our patient was a 42 year old mother, whose two kids had been killed in the head on collision. Both her legs were broken, as was one of her arms. She had a suspected abdominal bleed.
We completed this flight at 0240 hrs..
Back at our home base, my crew finished paperwork on our flights while I shut down and refueled the aircraft. Having those tasks completed, I came in and closed out yesterdays flights in the aircraft log and brought forward the total airframe and component times for the following day, then logged the flight we had just completed.
The phone rang again at 3:15. My crew groaned......they were on the last hours of their 24 hour shift, and had been awake all but three hours of 24. We were dispatched to another small town hospital to pick up an 83 year old man that had no pulse in his right leg. When we arrived, we found that he had lost his left leg the previous year to a circulation problem. In flight, over the intercom, I heard my nurse and paramedic discussing the fact that this poor man was now going to lose this leg also.
We completed this flight at 0455 hours, and once again gathered in our base to tidy up the paperwork. By the time we were all done, it was 5:30, and we had the decision to make.......
Do we bother to lie down and sleep for less than an hour, or do we brew fresh coffee and just wait for the morning crew to arrive?
I sat down in front of Fox News on the TV and was asleep in short order, reclined in the chair.
Our relief started filtering in at 6:15. Fresh cup in hand, I briefed my relief on the previous nights activities and wished him a "good day".
In the 12 hour shift, I had been airborne four hours. I had transported three patients and one guard for the prisoner. I had shot 15 night landings to various rooftop/ground level pads. I had burned approximately 320 gallons of modified kerosene.
I was tired. I drove 45 minutes to my home, kissed my beautiful Sara Jean, and was snoring in very short order, knowing the whole process would start again in less than 12 hours.
But I don't get tired of this life, because it is never "routine". Our patients find ever more interesting ways to hurt themselves. I may or may not go back to these three hospitals over the next weeks or months.
Although we didn't land "on-scene" Wednesday night, we frequently do, and "night, scene landings" are as close to combat flying as anything I have done as a civilian.
I'm glad to have a job that I enjoy, where I can help people in serious trouble.
I'll have a difficult adjustment when I can no longer pass a flight physical.